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Marcus Rashford and Conservatism – COVID-19 and free school meals
Domestically and internationally, Covid-19 is a form of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ – a sudden eruption in the polity producing radical change preceded by periods of stability and equilibria. Arguably, the punctuation caused by the 2008 Financial Crisis is still visible and has not led to stability and equilibria. The scale of the pandemic has demanded proportionate policy responses. Policy output, therefore, presents opportunities and/or constraints for political leaders to refashion their political persona.
As regards British Politics, initially, Boris Johnson was criticised for not taking swift action in order to control the pandemic. As a prelude to policy initiation in March 2020, Johnson stated ‘there is such a thing as society’, he appeared to distance himself from New Right Conservatism, a tradition that he is strongly associated and signposted a change in Party narrative. Through rapid policy elaboration, several policies were atypical. Some policies legitimated state intervention echoing ‘Butskellism’. Policies on ‘Lockdown’ impacted heavily upon individual liberty and freedom and brought to the fore the question of rights and responsibilities and Traditional Conservatism.
Through policy output, Johnson appeared to initiate a new Party narrative which blended Social Democracy, Compassionate Conservatism and Traditional Conservatism. Johnson presented as a collaborative leader as seen in daily televised press conferences where he was accompanied by senior members of the Cabinet. Johnson illustrated personalised leadership as opposed to the strong and uncompromising style of Margaret Thatcher which did, at least for a time, have performative significance, and was considered a response to the social, political and economic problems of the 1970s.
Through policy elaboration, Johnson can be seen to refashion his political persona from a New Right Conservative whose background included Eton, Bullingdon Club, and Oxford University to a collective leader. There was, however, one significant intervention from outside the political process that reinforced the negative connotations associated with Johnson’s trajectory and New Right disposition, and undermined efforts to refashion his image.
Marcus Rashford and policy
In July 2020, Marcus Rashford – a Manchester United and England star footballer – intervened in the political process and challenged the Government’s decision not to provide free school meals during the six-week summer break. Rashford was a recipient of free school meals, he personalised the issue and linked it to social justice more broadly. The Conservative Party defended its position by outlining the increase in Universal Credit as a solution, the issue, however, gained traction and became divisive. Rashford’s campaign continued to gained momentum, he was celebrated. Johnson’s stance, however, reinforced the New Right image of the Party associated with the disposition of less state dependency.
Rashford’s campaign continued to gain momentum and represented an ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy – empathy versus antipathy and poverty versus wealth. After mounting pressure, Johnson performed a U-turn and issued Supermarket vouchers to families qualifying for free school meals ahead of the summer holidays. The initial reluctance to perform a U-turn iterated Johnson’s disposition of less state dependency, and, contradicted by policies on state intervention. The policy on free school meals was pliant. Rashford had undermined Johnson’s image, status and authority. His intervention highlighted the role of celebrity and citizen participation in the political process. Rashford’s received an MBE as a sign of endorsement, there was a sharp contrast in his image vis-à-vis Johnson’s.
Rashford’s intervention inadvertently critiqued Universal Credit and its efficacy. In foregrounding the issue of free school meals and wider issues linked to social justice and social mobility, Rashford depicted the Conservative Party as out-of-touch and lacking empathy and compassion. This was the pre-Cameron image of the Conservative Party in the public realm.
At the end of September 2020, the Government announced that it will not extend free school meals during the Autumn half-term and Christmas holidays. As a response, Rashford intervened for the second time. Owing to Rashford’s popularity and support, several local business and food outlets offered free school meals to children during the half-term in order to fill the void that the Government had created. The disparity between politicians and the public and camaraderie amongst those supporting the idea of free school meals was striking. Supporters of Rashford were aligned to principles of social justice and dissociated with the Conservative Party.
In response to growing cases of the Coronavirus, on 5 November – the first day of the second four-week national Lockdown – the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced the extension of the Furlough scheme until March 2021. There was mounting pressure on the Government to act on free school meals as the issue was likely to return ahead of the Christmas school holidays. On 9 November, Johnson performed a second U-turn outlining that free school meals will be provided to children over the Christmas break as well as school holidays in February and Easter 2021. In this, Johnson averted future critique up to Easter 2021.
In Johnson’s response to the pandemic, policies have crossed Party lines to create new dispositions and narratives. Initially, Johnson appeared to distance himself from New Right Conservatism, his hesitation on free school meals policy highlighted New Right Conservatism and its negative connotations in the context of the crisis. Pre-Cameron narratives of the Party out-of-touch and old-fashioned were evoked.
Rashford’s intervention in the political process illustrated the role of ideas in politics and the pliant nature of policy and politics, and that structure and agency are not mutually exclusive, they are inherently linked. In Political Science, Constructivist institutionalism theorises the structure-agency debate and links it to the material-ideational, in that structure equates to the material and agency to the ideational. Ideas are accorded a central role in understanding political outcomes as well as how structures impact upon individuals and vice versa, and how political outcomes are shaped as a result of this interaction (albeit to differing degrees). Johnson’s initial hesitation on the issue of free school meals created ‘space’ for the ideational to react with the material and affect political outcomes.
The speed in which policies were developed in response to COVID-19 presents challenges and raises questions about the robustness of policy output. The current policy challenge lies not in creating an adequate policy framework, rather, presenting policy through context-specific dispositions and narratives. The interaction between context and policy or punctuated equilibria is central to understanding policy output in crisis moments.
Dr Amarjit Lahel is a member of the Political Studies Association. Image credit: Number 10/Flickr